The following was originally preached as a sermon on September 20, 2015 at the Congregational Church in Exeter.
I’ve talked before about being a football fan. Not just football; I also follow the Red Sox and in terms of that other kind of football, I’m a Liverpool fan, but football is the one sport that I’ll watch even if I have no stake in either of the teams that are playing.
And I have a process for determining who I’ll cheer for. I’m a lifelong Washington fan. My mom is from up here so I’ve also always followed the Pats. And I married a Buffalo Bills fan. But if they aren’t playing, then I pick the team I’ll cheer for with one question: who’s the underdog.
I love rooting for the underdog. I love the come-from-behind, against all expectations wins. But even if they lose, I love teams that play with heart, even when they are desperately overmatched.
I don’t think I’m alone in that. I hardly ever hear people say “I really want to root for the team that crushes everyone”. It’s like rooting for Darth Vader or Voldemort. The ones who have everything just do not inspire us. We love the little guy, against all odds, winning.
And that’s why we love the story of David and Goliath. Because it is the ultimate story of the triumph of the underdog.
Goliath, we’re told, was a giant. Maybe not a literal giant, but a huge warrior. He was a Philistine and the Philistines hated the Israelites and wanted to destroy them. And the two armies met and were at a sort of stand off with a no-man’s land in between.
And for forty days, every day twice a day, Goliath came out into the no-man’s land and challenged the Israelites to a fight. Send me one Israelite, he said, just one and I’ll fight him, winner takes all, to determine who wins this battle.
Well, no one is crazy enough to fight Goliath. No Israelite steps forward. So finally Saul, the king, who doesn’t know what to do, offers a reward to anyone willing to fight Goliath. But it’s a fool’s errand, and everyone knows it, so no one does it.
No one until David. And even Saul thinks he has lost his mind. He offers him his own armor, and David won’t even take it. Instead, David takes a sling shot, and five stones, and he walks off to face Goliath.
So, that’s remarkable enough. David is taking his very life into his hands, and the odds do not look good. And it’s important to note here that David wasn’t even a warrior. It’s not like the Israelites found their best guy and sent him up front.
Instead, he was the youngest kid in his family. An eighth son in a culture where seven sons were valued. He was like the kid who is always picked last in gym class. In fact, when God had sent Samuel to his house as a boy to find the one God had chosen to make king, David’s father hadn’t even bothered to bring him into the house. He just naturally figured it would be one of the seven older boys and he left David out tending the sheep instead because he was the ultimate underdog. And no one expected anything amazing to come out of him.
Have you ever been the underdog? Have you ever had people think or say that you weren’t up to something? Have you ever had your abilities doubted? I sure have. I think that we all have.
So when David was walking across the battle lines that day, into that no man’s zone, can you imagine what his friends and family and even the strangers who were watching him were thinking?
“He’s going to get himself killed.”
“He’s not even wearing armor?”
“I can’t bear to watch this.”
“He can’t be our best hope.”
It must have felt like watching a man walk to his own execution. And yet, he walked anyway, of his own will. And when he got to the place, when the fight was about to start, even Goliath was in disbelief. He was offended that the Israelites would send someone so small and helpless and young.
But David said this, “you come to me with weapons, but I come to you in God’s name. And God does not save by the sword or spear.”
This enraged Goliath and he rushed toward David, but before he could do anything, David pulled out a slingshot, and one of those five stones, and he slung it at Goliath. And the giant fell.
The giant fell.
Unbelievable. And this is how we remember David, as the man who made the giant fall. As the underdog who stood up for his people. As the little guy who overcame impossible odds with God.
It’s a great story. It’s like every come-from-behind football game, every Harry Potter book, and every Star Wars movie rolled into one. The good guy wins. The bad guy loses. And no one doubts the underdog again.
It would be great if that were how the story of David ended. A happy ending, for everyone except for Goliath. But that’s not the end of David’s story.
Have you ever wondered about what happens to the underdogs who stop giants?
In David’s case, life got pretty good. Saul, the king, made David a commander of his armies and David even married his daughter. And then, after the fall of Saul, David became the king himself. And he was such a mighty king that in the Gospels the writers make sure to tell us that Jesus himself was a descendant of David.
But that doesn’t mean he was perfect. And that doesn’t mean he always did the right thing. In fact, it wasn’t long after Goliath’s fall that David forgot what it was to be an underdog.
One day David saw a beautiful woman named Bathsheba on a rooftop. And he decided he wanted her to be his. The woman’s husband was a soldier, and so David used his power to get the man sent to the front of a battle line where he knew he would be killed. And he was, and David then married his wife.
It turns out the good guy wasn’t always a good guy after all.
And that’s important to remember, because most of us probably think of ourselves as the underdog. Most of us probably think of ourselves as the “good guy” fighting against the odds. And, chances are at times in our lives we have been. But David’s story reminds us that we aren’t always. And it reminds us that we have to ask ourselves from time to time, “Have I, in some ways, become the giant?”
That’s what David was to that man he sent to the front of battle. A giant, with the power to destroy him. And he did. And it wasn’t until his friend Nathan told him the brutal and honest truth about himself that he realized it, and regretted it. Because he realized he had become the same kind of Goliath that he had sought to destroy.
The reality is that we are all Davids. And we are all Goliaths. We are all, in at least some parts of our lives, underdogs. But we are all also people of great privilege and power.
I remember the first time that really struck me. I was 17, and I had just graduated from high school, and I went to Washington, DC for the summer to do an internship in the House of Representatives. And CSPAN was playing in the office where I worked, like it always was, and a member of Congress was speaking on the floor.
I can’t remember who it was, or what the issue was, or even what party they were, but all of that doesn’t matter. Because as I was half-listening, I heard something that would stick with me. The speaker quoted their favorite verse from Scripture, “to whom much is given, much is to be expected”.
Jesus said that. I had never heard it before, but I heard it then. And at that moment I knew that I had more privilege than I had ever realized before.
Here I was, getting ready to head off to a great college in the fall. And I was standing in a building literally down the street from where my father had grown up the son of a machinist. His family hadn’t been able to afford college, so he was at boot camp that summer after high school. But I was standing in an air conditioned office in Congress, not worried at all about how I would eat, or pay the rent, or take classes in the fall. And I heard those lines, and I realized in a deeper way than ever before how privileged I truly was.
Now, I think I’ve worked hard in my life. And I know what it is to be an underdog. But that realization I had that day has never left me.
I think most of us have more privilege than we realize. We have our Goliath moments when we think we are really David. But I think that when we see clearly how much we are given, and how much God has lifted us up, we can’t help but realize what we have. And if we are being faithful, we can’t help but ask, how can I use what I’ve been given?
I truly believe that character is revealed in what we choose to do with our power. Character is revealed in us becoming like David in a Goliath world, and stripping off our armor and standing in faith. And character is revealed in using our privilege and strength for the good of others.
I’ll close with a story about that. Today we are dedicating our new pulpit Bible. It’s been coming to us for a while now, and the Deacons received it a few months ago. And today, we are dedicating it to the memory of the man whose memorial funds allowed us to bring it here today: Donald Cole.
Don left this world in 2013, shortly before I joined you. But I’ve heard a lot of stories about him as a scholar and gentleman, and about the way he mentored his students at Phillips Exeter Academy. But this is my favorite.
Fifty years ago, when Don was a deacon here, he noticed something strange: all the deacons were men. And that didn’t sit right with him. And so this man asked an obvious question, “Why aren’t women deacons?” And he didn’t stop there. He used his influence in order to advocate for women to become deacons, and he ushered this church into a new error of inclusivity.
Fifty years later, it is not lost on me that I’m able to stand in this pulpit. And I give Donald Cole some of the credit for that. He was a giant, in the best sense of that word. And when you become a giant, you have two choices. You can use all the strength you have to strike others down. Or you can use it to lift them up. It’s clear which he chose.
We are all constantly choosing which David we are going to be. The one who fights giants. Or the one who becomes one without even realizing it. On those days when we are towering over the earth, may we remember what it is to stand alone on the front lines, willing to give of ourselves for a better future for others. And in that moment of remembering, may we look around, remember all that we have, and choose with our next move to lift up the world. Amen?